Astronauts have created “exotic matter” on board the International Space Station.
The experiment used the microgravity of space to generate and study matter in ways that would not be possible on Earth.
And the findings that result could change our understanding of physics at a fundamental level.
The research saw astronuats generate the fifth state of matter, Bose-Einstein condensates. Those are made when a gas of bosons is cooled down nearly to absolute zero.
At those extreme temperatures, the matter begins to behave oddly: the atoms become one single entity, which show quantum properties.
As such, they are a bridge between the microscopic world – which is governed by the often unexpected processes of quantum mechanics – and the macroscopic world, where classical physics apply.
Scientists hope to use those Bose-Einstein condensates to gain deep insight into quantum mechanics. But they have had trouble because gravity can get in the way of measuring them precisely.
That led researchers to send equipment known as the Cold Atom Lab to the International Space Station. That allowed the astronauts on board to operate prepare Bose-Einstein condensates in that microgravity environment, and measure how those conditions changed the properties compared with Earth.
They found, for instance, that the atoms hover around for much longer – the state lasts for more than a second, compared with just tens of milliseconds on Earth. That in turn will allow researchers to observe the Bose-Einstein condensates with much more precision, since they will have more time to do so.
What’s more, the condensates can be trapped by weaker forces, the researchers write, allowing them to reach even lower temperatures. As the conditions get colder, the exotic quantum effects become more prominent, allowing researchers to better understand them and potentially shed light on some of the most fundamental mysteries of physics.
“The successful generation of Bose–Einstein condensates in orbit unveils new opportunities for research on quantum gases as well as for atom interferometry and paves the way for even more ambitious missions,” writes Maike Lachmann in an accompanying News & Views article.
The experiment is just one part of a host of pioneering work happening on the International Space Station, and exploiting the microgravity conditions that can be found there. Earlier this year, scientists reported success in attempts to grow new organs in the floating lab.
An article describing the findings is published in Nature today. The journal had intended to reveal the findings on 10 June, but delayed them by a day to support the “#ShutdownSTEM” movement, which aimed to use 10 June to support black researchers and concentrate on work that amplifies their voices.